Some thoughts on Exile and the Dislocated Bones of Ezekiel’s Imagination

Ezekiel is ecstatic in his prophecy. His visions are psychadelic. I wonder if it is this that brings his prophecy home to his fellow exiles – themselves ecstatic in the sense that they are far from home, removed from their stasis. His colourful language in response to God’s call and the suffering of their exile even resonates with us. For example, Ezekiel gives us the image of wheels within wheels which is the phrase often used to describe the powers that be. And, of course, it is Ezekiel who has given us the singalong Dry Bones as he explored the exile experience of dislocation and displacement and their eventual revival and replacement through the image of those dry bones.

(Here’s the Delta Rhythm Boys singing Dry Bones.)

Ezekiel sees the hand of God in exile. According to Ezekiel, it is God who drove Ezekiel and his fellow exiles out, for the sake of their safety. He sees the glory of God moving with them, abandoning the old place and travelling with them to their many places. Far and wide they are scattered and dispersed, becoming a diaspora. God is the scatterer rather than the perpetrators of violence and occupation and he scatters them to save them from the violence and occupation.

Ezekiel’s message would have created a very different horizon for the exiles. Maybe they thought that they were exiled because of their enemies or because of their shame and guilt. But here, Ezekiel is reframing their experience. For those who would listen there is the message of hope – that love is the reason for their exile, a concern for their safety, that God’s glory remains with them, and that that glory will give them fresh heart which will lead to their return.

“Those [the exiles] of whom the inhabitants of Jerusalem have said ‘They have gone far from the Lord; to us this land is given for a possession.’ Say to them: Thus says the Lord God: Though I removed them [the exiles] far away mong the nations, ad though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone. Therefore say [to the exiles]: Thus says the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered … I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them.”

Ezekiel 11

I wonder how many exiles see God as the cause of their exile, and how many see the glory of God travelling with them. Certainly xenophobic communities don’t see exiled refugees in that light as they tighten their borders against them. But let’s imagine what happens when, in the words of Warsan Shire’s poem Home, “home is the mouth of a shark”, when home is a place that is too dangerous, too dangerous to be called home, when home is no place for our gods, when they become god forsaken. The God of Exodus never settles – always ready to move in with us and move out with us. Have we got the theological imagination of Ezekiel to imagine God leading the abused, the tortured from one place of extreme danger to places of sanctuary? Have we got the imagination to see the light of God’s love in our coastal waters guiding exiles to safe havens?

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
Warsan Shire

According to Ezekiel’s ecstatic imagination the diaspora is God’s doing. It is his dislocation and dispersal. This dispersal is reenacted in our liturgy. At God’s word we go, “in peace to love and serve the world”. We are scattered far and wide like seed. We are made exiles because, in other imaginations of scripture, we are in the world but not of the world (John 17:6), sheep amongst wolves (Matthew 10:16), living in cities while calling another city home (Hebrews 11:10), praying for a kingdom like nothing on earth (Matthew 6:9-13).

Here’s Jamila Lyiscott reading Warsan Shire’s Home.

A priestly kingdom – inspired and created by Exodus

“See what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings.
You shall be for me a priestly kingdom.” (from Exodus 19).

A “kingdom” is a proper collective noun for priests. God’s call of priests is for the whole people, the whole nation – for the many, not just the few. It is for all those who have been borne on eagles’ wings through the harshest circumstances imaginable – in the case of these people hearing God’s call in Exodus, it is people who have suffered slavery and all kinds of oppression. There are no priests who don’t belong to the kingdom, and outside of the kingdom there is no call for priests.

This priestly kingdom is more than the “priesthood of all believers” – this is a priesthood of all those who have been liberated. Their liberation defines their identity and identifies their function of being a blessing for the whole world, for all the nations. (It defines “blessing” as nothing less than liberative, nothing less than redemptive even from the worst evil imaginable.)

How have we got our understanding of priesthood so spectacularly wrong? In common parlance priests are those who are ordained. Peter writes to those who were “nobodies” – “aliens and strangers in the world”: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his own marvellous light.” (1 Peter 2:9).

The Ordination Service takes up the call: “God calls his people to follow Christ and forms us into a royal priesthood”. This is the vocation of the whole church, not just a few of its members, “to declare the wonderful deeds of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light”. The liturgy of the Ordination of Priests continues: “To serve this royal priesthood, God has given particular ministries” – ordained priests being among them.

What distinguishes those who are ordained priests is that they can be trusted with the power of ordering the life of this kingdom, co-ordinating its energy for the purposes of peace, making its wonder ordinary in the community’s DNA. The discernment and formation processes are supposed to see to that. The charge they accept is to do those things which serve this royal priesthood, the whole people of God, borne on eagles’ wings through times of trial and trouble in order that this kingdom of priests will be blessing for the whole world.

For that they will share with their Bishop as messengers and stewards, watching for the signs of God’s new creation. They will teach and encourage. They will guide people through temptation and confusion and they will declare in Christ’s name the forgiveness of sins.

With all God’s people they will baptise new disciples, preach faithfully in and out of season. They will preside at the Lord’s table and lead the kingdom of priests in worship. They will bless people in God’s name. They will resist evil, supporting the weak, defending the poor and interceding for those in need.

These things and others they are trusted to take on in order to serve the work of the kingdom of priests (aka “church” and “Israel”) – always for the purposes of the kingdom of priests: for the blessing and praise of all of God’s creation.

Doula dos and dupes …. and ministry

Doula (L) with newborn and mother.jpg
Doula (L) with newborn and mother” by TheLawleys – Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

What do clergy do? Well, the joke goes that they work on Sundays. And they joke when someone thoughtlessly asks “what are you doing for Christmas”. Whatever they do puts clergy on top of the pile when it comes to job satisfaction.

What do clergy do, especially when it looks like nothing? That’s the title of an excellent book on ministry by Emma Percy that leaves the impression that clergy should actually find it difficult to answer the question, “what do clergy do?” It’s a reminder, for Emma, of what many mothers ask at the end of a busy day – “What have I done all day?” They don’t see the answer themselves. In fact, they have done a lot but it feels like nothing.

What does a doula do? That was a man question on Radio 5 yesterday as Nicky Campbell asked a doula from Somerset what she did. She found it difficult to answer. She tried. “A doula does a whole range of things”, she said. “She is just there”, she said. She is there for the family, helping women to have the birth they want. I got the impression that a doula can’t narrow their job to one thing, or the other, or the many – but only the every thing that is needed. And Nicky Campbell asked, “what does a doula do in the birthing room?” “Well” she said. “Sometimes I do nothing, or knit and drink tea, sometimes I give massage for 15 hours at a time – whatever is needed.”

And that is what a doula does. And that is what a minister does. And that is what anyone does who respects the life-giving power of another. Here’s how another doula explains that a doula is “somebody on the journey who will be there for you no matter what”. “Rather Christ-like” is what I have to say, and, rather overwhelmed with the obsession with leadership talk as I am, I’d also want to say that it’s a view of ministry in which leadership talk is laid to rest in wisdom and helpfulness.

The word “doula” originates in the ancient Greek word δούλη which is the feminine form of “slave”. The doula is non-technical, non-medical – her only qualification is her experience as a woman and her willingness to share her practical wisdom.

Shiphrah (her name means “brightness”) and Puah (her name means “splendid”) are outstanding women who get a mention in Exodus 1:15-20. They are really doulas, although they are known as midwives who trick the Pharoah and resist his final solution to the Hebrew problem. He ordered them to kill the boy babies but Shiphrah and Puah have a reverence for life and carry on their work of bringing life into the world. They show themselves as wise women and they show the Pharoah up as totally stupid. Ackerman writes that rather than cower before the most powerful man on earth they “defend themselves with straight faces against Pharoah’s charge of insubordination. Their lives are at stake, and yet their sly comparison between the vigorous Hebrew women and the pampered Egyptians comes through as totally credible to the ‘wise’ king: ‘Oh yes, of course, that would be a problem, wouldn’t it?’ There is a great relish in this uneven conflict between the effete elite and the crude, but shrewd, vital, and resourceful, oppressed. The king fails to realise that not only is he being deceived, but he is also being mocked.”

That’s what doulas can do. That’s what ministers can do – but never just that.

Preaching for a change

Sermon for today – in which I have chosen to go with theappointed Old Testament text (Exodus 33:12-end) for preaching this morning. The OldTestament is often neglected in our thinking – but I hope you will see whytoday’s reading is important to us, and not only to us, but to all the peopleof God.

Jacob wrestling with angel by Rembandt
Can I remind you that thepeople of God were named Israel, by God after Jacob’s sleepless night of wrestling with the angel of God (or withGod)? After that match Jacob is called ISRAEL – and the name Israel means “onewho wrestles with God”, or “one who is straight, direct with God.”

The people of God wrestlewith him, struggle with him, and are straight and direct with him. This line ofthought suggests that we are not called to be mildly submissive to God, butthat God actually wants us to struggle with him, be direct with him, and begrown up with him. He wants us to get to grips with him.

This straightness anddirectness is reflected in the prayer of the People of God – which might aswell start with “I want to be straight with you God”, in a spirit of challenge. Our reading from Exodus showsMoses engaged in this sort of conversation which consists of challengingdemands.

We are told that “the Lordused to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” In our readingwe have the privilege of overhearing that conversation in which Moses isnegotiating with God.
We may take it for grantedthat God answers prayer – but in this passage we have the foundation of thatfaith which Scripture wants us to take for granted.

Black Moses

Speaking face to face, as onespeaks with a friend, God hears Moses’ prayer and answers it in the mostpositive way. He doesn’t just answer Moses’ prayer, but gives more than Mosesdares even to imagine – and it isintended that we get used to that, and take it for granted, so that we may toowith trust let God get to grips with us so that he can know our mind and whatis on our heart.

Thebackground to Moses’ demands is that God had told him that he wouldn’t go withthem to the Promised Land because he was so angry with the people for breakingthe agreement that they had.
“Go up to a land flowing with milk andhoney; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, foryou are a stiff-necked people.” (Exodus 33:3).
Mosesinsists that God must accompany his people. He recognizes that the relationshipwith God is more important than the real estate of the Promised Land.
Theanswers to Moses’s prayer in these chapters of Exodus are outrageouslygenerous. He is prepared to start again and offers new tablets of commandmentsto replace the agreement and commandment that the people had broken.
Mosesand the Lord stood together on Mount Sinai – as friends so that Mosesunderstands just how God is going to fulfill his part of the bargain, hispromise to his people.
Thisis how God summarized the characteristics of his behavior with his peopleduring that conversation with Moses:
The Lord passed before him, andproclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow toanger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast lovefor the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parentsupon the children, and the children’s children, to the third and fourthgeneration.” (34:5-7).
Whilethere is mention of punishment the emphasis is on God’s forgiving love. Theguilty aren’t cleared, but the consequences of their guilt only reach to thethird and fourth generation, while steadfast love reaches to the thousandthgeneration – in other words – forever. This is how God is going to be forever:merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love andfaithfulness, keeping steadfast love to the thousandth generation.
We have to remember howdifferently God is promising to behave. He had been so angry with his people(and justly so, according to the text) – but now, in response to the demands of his people, he isgoing to be so slow to anger. In response to one of us humans, God changes hismind about his behaviour. In future his behaviour is going to be governed bysteadfast love and faithfulness.
In the section of the storywhich we read this morning we have the summary of God’s response to Moses. “Mypresence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
All of us can find rest inthe knowledge of the manner of God’s promised presence, particularly when thatpresence is governed by steadfast love and faithfulness. This is how God iswith us. We don’t need to worry that he is any different. We can trust in hisforgiving love. We don’t need to be afraid – the Lord is here, unconditionally.
Moses makes one request toGod that God does not agree to.  Moseswants to see God face to face. God’s response: “You cannot see my face; for noone shall see my face and live.” (33:20)

Instead, we have a ratherpuzzling response.
“Thereis a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passesby I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my handuntil I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see myback.”

WakeSeeing the back of God israther strange. Most people see this as “the WAKE of God” – just as we see theripples and waves in the wake of a boat, so we are given sight of the effectsof God’s love. Seeing the back of God is seeing where God is and has been.

So far, I have mentioned onlyhow God is governing his behaviour in covenant with his people. I haven’t mentionedwhat he promises to do. He said “before all your people I will perform marvels,such as not have been performed in all the earth or in any nation. (34:10).

Seeing the back of God isseeing the wake of marvels, seeing the work of God. And the work of God ismending the broken – the broken in this case, being the very heart of therelationship between God and his people.

Seeing the wake of God isseeing where God is going. Seeing the wake of God is being able to follow hiswork of mending. Seeing the wake of God is being able to follow him and joiningin his most marvellous work of remaking broken relationships, and SHALOM.

Even in this way, Godresponded to Moses request, but gave him, once again, more than he could everdream of. Which is better? To see God face to face, or to be able to followhim, in his wake, and love him for all his ways?

The Winton Train

Wow. The Winton Train arrives at Liverpool Street Station today – with passengers rescued from Prague 70 years ago – the train will be met by the person who masterminded the rescue – Nicholas Winton (pictured). Nicholas Winton is 100 years old.

Altogether he managed to rescue 669 children transporting them by train from Prague to Lon don. Most of them were Jewish children who otherwise would have become victims of the holocaust. They have become known as the Winton Children – and that family of 669 has now become a family of 5000. This was part of the Kindertransport rescue mission which began a few days after Kristallnacht (1938) when some British Jewish leaders petitioned the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, to accept unaccompanied Jewish children from Europe to protect them from Nazism. Six million Jews were killed in the holocaust. A quarter of them were children.

Dagmar Simova is one of the Winton Children on the train. Her response to the question of what it felt like to be once again being on a train from Prague is on the Winton Train Project’s blog: “My mother, father and grandfather came to the station with me. We all wept. This time my husband and daughter came to see me off. When we waved, suddenly it struck me. I was looking at them, but again I saw those three.”

Nicholas Winton never mentioned anything about this. It only became known 50 years later when his wife, Elizabeth, came across some papers when she was cleaning out their attic.

People like Nicholas Winton are honoured in a memorial park in Prague called the Orchard of Saviours. It celebrates all who helped Jewish children at great cost to themselves. Four types of apple trees have been planted and the refurbished fountain has been named after Sir Nicholas Winton.

The Winton Train Project hopes to despatch another Winton Train with young people and their artworks inspired by goodness bound for other European cities, and that it become a tradition to commemorate the resilient determination of people to believe in goodness and actively take part in a common future.


> Today’s election victory by Barak Obama has something biblical about it. It feels like an exodus. The 44th president elected 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, who in the midst of tremendous racial hatred and bigotry had a dream. The alection of an a black president must feel wonderful for black Americans. Already the excitement is capturing the imagination of people around the world with the hope that he may provide a visionary and mature leadership.

I am reminded of Moses who led his people from oppression in Egypt and who also had 40 years to wait between dream and reality, and I am reminded of Joseph the dreamer of Egypt – and his coat of many colours.

I hope we remember how the Afro-Americans have been oppressed. I hope the great indignities of their not so distant history are not brushed out of human consciousness and that hoods of the KKK, the burning necklaces and the chains of slavery may continue to testify to the shallowness and shortsightedness of those who cannot see beneath the colour of a person’s skin.

Yes. This seems like an exodus story. The end of an oppressive age governed by puerile thinking. Until the next time ……..